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For These Lesbian Activists, The Future Has Always Been Female

In her first public statement since Donald Trump’s inauguration, released by video at AOL’s 2017 MAKERS Conference, Hillary Clinton uttered four words that caused a kerfuffle across the political spectrum: “The future is female.”

As The Washington Post’s Katie Mettler reported, at the conference, which unsurprisingly skewed liberal — it was in California, for one thing; for another, MAKERS defines itself as “a storytelling platform for the trailblazing women of today and tomorrow” — the statement was met with glee.

In conservative circles, Clinton’s words drew ire. Writing for The National Review, Heather Wilhelm imagined the reaction of young boys hearing the phrase: “What are they supposed to think, other than that girls matter more than they do?” In the same publication, Michelle Malkin called it “a dog whistle to the most extreme wing of the progressive feminist movement — where an explicitly anti-male, grievance-wallowing, lady-parts-obsessed culture prevails.” (Let’s remember, before we move forward, that being explicitly pro-female does not necessitate being “anti-male.”)

The flurry of attention would have likely delighted that phrase’s originators, who, Mettler shared, were 1970s lesbian separatists.

(For those not familiar with the movement, the artist Liza Cowan gave a good introduction to it in a 2015 interview with i-D. “Contrary to popular belief, lesbian separatism was never a prescriptive code for behaviour [sic] or relationships,” she said. “Lesbian Separatism, boiled down, was a way to figure out what it meant to be a woman, without having to bother with men telling you what you could not think or say. It was a way to develop networks of women’s businesses, publishers, bookstores, conferences, cafes, trade organisations [sic], credit unions, music production, health care centres [sic], media, schools, self-defence [sic] courses, cooperative farms, festivals, auto-repair shops, distribution networks.”)

Here’s the rallying cry’s brief history: Labyris, the first women’s bookstore in New York City, adopted the phrase as its slogan after its founding in 1972. They sold merchandise emblazoned with it, and in 1975, Cowan took a photograph of her girlfriend at the time, Jewish musician Alix Dobkin, wearing a T-shirt sporting the slogan.

Forty years later, in 2015, Kelly Rakowski posted that image to her popular Instagram account, @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, where her friend Rachel Berks saw and shared it. Berks, a graphic designer who owns and operates Los Angeles’s Otherwild Goods & Services — and recently shared this feminist flashback to her Bat Mitzvah — was inundated by responses saying she should make the shirt. So she did.

Soon, she and Cowan connected, and she gained Cowan’s permission to use the image of Dobkin to market the shirt. The duo also collaborated on creating a set of pins bearing the slogan, based on similar pins Cowan had manufactured in the 70s, and Berks began donating 25% of the proceeds from sales of the shirt to Planned Parenthood.

Her design was wildly popular, so much so that it’s twice caused controversy in the fashion world. First, in December 2015, model and actress Cara Delevingne — who had previously been spotted in one of Berks’s shirts — began selling her own, near-identical shirt bearing the same slogan, donating an unnamed percentage of the proceeds to the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up initiative. Berks initially responded angrily, then with tempered grievance; minor fashion chaos ensued.

More recently, as Paper Magazine reported, at the close of his New York Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2017 fashion show on February 12, Prabal Gurung sent model Bella Hadid onto the runway in a shirt that looked suspiciously like Otherwild’s. Thus far, neither Gurung nor Berks has responded to questions over the similarity.

A Clinton pronouncement has a way of staying in the political mainstream, and it’s likely we’ll be seeing a good deal of “the future is female” in, well, the future. But for Cowan, Dobkin, Rakowski, Berks and the hordes of happy feminists trotting around in Berks’s shirts, the phrase has been a longstanding promise. Will it ever come true?

Look to Clinton’s November concession speech for hope.

“I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling,” she said. “But someday, someone will, and hopefully sooner than we might think right now.”

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